02 Da Capo New WorksNew Works
Da Capo Chamber Choir
Independent DC 003-18 (dacapochamberchoir.ca)

Waterloo-based DaCapo Chamber Choir is celebrating its 20th anniversary with this release featuring Canadian choral works by six established and four emerging composers, set to words ranging from Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence. Recorded in four sessions over a two-year period, each work was a choir premiere, with all but James Rolfe’s composition featured in DaCapo’s annual, national composition competition.

Choral lovers will rejoice (and perhaps sing along) to these diverse works. Of the established composers, Benjamin Bolden’s Harvest features classic choral counterpoint with slightly atonal sounds interspersed with tonal sections. Jeff Enns’ Le Pont Mirabeau has higher-pitched Romantic harmonies to stress the words. Rolfe’s Shadows is a to-be-expected well-written piece with dramatic word-painting rhythms at “autumn deepens” and atonality on “distress,” and a vibrant unexpected high-pitched tenor solo (sung by Brian Black) at the dramatic highpoint. Emerging composer David Archer’s In Sweet Music is a slow work with classic choral qualities (swells and lyricism) with a touch of minimalism at the repeated “fall asleep” end part. Works by Christine Donkin, Don Macdonald, Sheldon Rose, Matthew Emery, Nicholas Ryan Kelly and Patrick Murray complete the recording.

Conducted by founding artistic director Leonard Enns, the choir sings with both technical and musical acumen. Each vocal section is strong, knowledgeable and unafraid to sing both new and established choral sounds with perfect balance and articulation. Canadian choral music shines thanks to DaCapo!

01 Bach BWV21JS Bach – Cantata BWV 21
Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9540 (analekta.com/en)

Of all the musical commentaries on the biblical texts used in service – most importantly on the Gospel reading – the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are not only the most famous, but are also as pious as they are magnificent. These are the works that foretold the choral masterpieces such as the mighty St John and St Matthew Passions that came in 1724 and 1727 respectively.

The repertoire on this disc, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, Cantata BWV21 (1714) precedes those two great Passions as well as Bach’s B-Minor Mass (1749). The cantata marks a transition from motet style on biblical and hymn text to operatic recitatives and arias on contemporary poetry; and Bach characterized the work as “e per ogni tempo (and for all times),” indicating that due to its general theme, the cantata is suited for any occasion. On this disc it is bookended by two arias: Heil und Segen from Gott, man lobet dich in der stille (God, You are praised in the stillness) BWV120 and Liebt, ihr Christen, in der Tat from Die Himmel eräzhlen die Erhe Gotte (The heavens tell the glory of God) Cantata BWV76.

These gentle works get suitably sensitive performances from the Bach Choir of Bethlehem with sopranos Cassandra Lemoine and Rosa Lamoreaux, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and baritone William Sharp investing everything as they solo with heartfelt intensity. Conductor Greg Funfgeld points up the drama of Bach’s choral works with eloquent restraint, seriousness and joy.

Handel – Agrippina
Theater an der Wien; Patricia Bardon; Jake Arditti; Danielle de Niese; Filippo Mineccia; Balthasar Neumann Ensemble; Thomas Hengel Brock
Naxos 2.110579-80 (naxosdirect.com)

Handel – Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day
Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9541 (analekta.com/en) 

These two recordings take very different approaches to two key works in Handel’s life, including choices between period and modern instrumentation.

02a Handel AgrippinaIn 1709, in the early phase of Handel’s operatic career, he was approached in Venice by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani to set Grimani’s satirical libretto based on Agrippina’s machinations to have her son Nero named emperor of Rome. Generally regarded as Handel’s first great opera – there’s a treasure trove of arias – its ribald text has been inspiring radically contemporary stagings for the past 20 years, most notably by David McVicar. Theater an der Wien’s production is a highly entertaining combination of musical purity and Robert Carsen’s provocative staging. The Balthasar Neumann Ensemble plays period instruments and three of the eight roles are sung by countertenors. Meanwhile, there’s a steely sheen to the furnishings, an iMac adorns a desk, and the fine mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who has sung many of Handel’s principal females, plays the title role, stalking the halls of power in a leather skirt; at other times, the scatterbrained Nero, sung by countertenor Jake Arditti, frolics poolside with bikini-clad maidens. There’s some quickie desktop sex, a conspicuous issue of Vogue, onstage cameras and projections, staged news stories, a Mussolini-esque Claudio and, following the traditional happy ending, a gratuitous grand guignol bloodbath led by a mad Nero. Filmed in March 2016, staging that might have seemed over the top just three years ago approaches verisimilitude as our political culture increasingly resembles ancient Rome in decline.

02b Handel St CeciliaWith a 30-year leap in Handel’s career, we come to his 1739 setting of John Dryden’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, here performed by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and issued in commemoration of the choir’s 120th anniversary and Greg Funfgeld’s 35th as its conductor. The 88-voice choir is a Pennsylvania institution along with its annual Bach Festival and Bach Festival Orchestra. It’s Handel on a relatively moderated but still grand scale, harkening back to 19th- and early 20th-century traditions. The orchestra is playing modern instruments, but there are only 27 of them, and that large choir provides depth and an impressive richness. Two fine Canadian singers appear as soloists, lending distinguished skills to the arias. Halifax-native, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, brings a brassy bravado to the drum and horn effusion of The trumpet’s loud clangor, while Edmonton-born Cassandra Lemoine’s refined soprano dovetails beautifully with Robin Kani’s flute on The soft complaining flute. Lemoine’s grace and clarity also highlight the full force of choir and orchestra in the sustained conclusion of As from the pow’r of sacred lays.

03 Mahler Alexander QuartetIn Meinem Himmel – The Mahler Song Cycles
Kindra Scharich; Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL 2019 (foghornclassics.com) 

This project comes from San Francisco and it is an experiment by the renowned Alexander String Quartet to transcribe three of Mahler’s orchestral song cycles, Songs of a Wayfarer, Rückert-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder for string quartet in order to experience this repertoire in an intimate chamber music setting and perhaps enrich and enhance its emotional world. I had some misgivings, because nowadays there is a definite trend to different versions of the great works, by ambitious musicians, that could harm and distort the composer’s original intent.

To my mind, these are definitely orchestral songs and require the power and the colours of the full contingent of a symphony orchestra with Mahler’s unique orchestration for their musical and emotional impact. The sound of a string quartet is entirely different and hasn’t the pungent quality the wind instruments provide and it cannot possibly duplicate what Mahler had in mind, although the transcriber violinist Zakarias Grafilo, gave much thought and effort to preserve some of the aural colours and even the emotional innigkeit of the original, yet es ist kein Mahler as I imagine Leonard Bernstein would say.

Nevertheless it’s a labour of love. Idiomatic and virtuoso string playing and the singing is simply gorgeous. Young American mezzo Kindra Scharich has a beautiful voice, total emotional commitment and musical imagination that certainly makes worthwhile listening. Her soulful, anguished tone when the rejected lover sings about the two beautiful blue eyes of his lost sweetheart (Die zwei blauen Augen) is simply heartbreaking and I just loved her voice so full of joy in exclaiming Heia! in Ging heut morgen. An interesting experiment, but not quite Mahler.

04 Harbison RequiemJohn Harbison – Requiem
Soloists; Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrer
Naxos 8.559841 (naxosdirect.com) 

John Harbison’s Requiem captures the nature of death with both metaphysical and aesthetic sophistication, firstly because of the authentic use of the Latin text in its scriptural context and secondly because of the utterly existential prescience of this choral performance. Despite the fact that the music eventually soars with the apposite release of Libera me, the shadowy solemnity of the preceding sequences makes the work both profoundly melancholic and breathtakingly beautiful. It is a monumental work – Harbison’s pièce de résistance – appropriate to the events of 9/11 which inspired it. Consequently the use of the Latin in the setting of a traditional requiem might commemorate a divine passion – such as in the Introit – yet the work commemorates abject human suffering.

The musicians of the Nashville Symphony and Chorus convey the gravitas of Harbison’s epic work with a powerful sense of both sorrow and spontaneity. Chorus director Tucker Biddlecombe’s inspired choices of male and female voices – the powerful and incisive (solo) singing of Jessica Rivera (soprano), Michaela Martens (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor) and Kelly Markgraf (baritone) – and the ensemble performances, bring a passionate, soaring intensity to the antiphons, responsories and sequences, to produce an absorbing and inexorable service. Giancarlo Guerrero fixes his sights on the sheer drama of the proverbial solemn high mass and shepherds a program that swirls with sinewy energy heavy with the atmosphere of foreboding before its ultimate – even joyful – release of the final In paradisum.

05 Kira BraunDamask Roses – Art Songs by Mozart; Dvorak and Quilter
Kira Braun; Peter Krochak
Independent (kirabraunsoprano.com)

With Valentine’s Day approaching I enjoyed this love-themed CD, the latest in a series of varied art-song programs by Canadian duo Kira Braun and Peter Krochak. A relative (niece/first cousin) of famed Canadian father-and-son baritones Victor and Russell Braun, soprano Kira demonstrates her own high standard. Here there are three song groups by different composers: Mozart (18th century, in German), Dvořák (19th century, in Czech), and Roger Quilter (early 20th century, in English). The opening three Mozart songs demonstrate the duo’s fine ensemble and Braun’s excellent diction and tone, though I would have liked to have heard even more charm and colour in both voice and piano. By contrast, the interpretations of four selections from Quilter’s Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, Op.12 are especially appealing, including the title song, Damask Roses. Braun’s pure soprano is attractive and she brings both restraint and conviction to Weep You No More and also to Quilter’s earlier Love’s Philosophy from Three Songs, Op.3.

In both the Quilter lyrics and Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs, Op.55 there are songs in a higher range, that she is quite equal to, adopting a fiery demeanor in Set the Fiddle Scraping that Krochak matches with lively piano accompaniment. Their version of the well-known Songs My Mother Taught Me is appropriately affectionate; they bring out Dvořák’s contrasts and distinctive touches in this set, making it one I’m pleased to be able to return to.

Listen to 'Damask Roses: Art Songs by Mozart; Dvorak and Quilter' Now in the Listening Room

Roger Knox

06 I Carry Your HeartI Carry Your Heart
University of South Dakota Chamber Singers; David Holdhusen
Navona Records nv6203 (navonarecords.com) 

South Dakota? Isn’t this midwestern state most famous for its beautifully rugged landscape, including Mount Rushmore? Nevertheless, in light of this fine recording titled I Carry Your Heart, featuring the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers under the direction of David Holdhusen, it seems that South Dakota also has a vibrant choral scene.

The USD Chamber Singers is the institution’s premier vocal ensemble, having earned a reputation for high performance standards with a focus on a cappella repertoire. The ensemble presents formal concerts on campus each semester and its annual tours have taken the group to various parts of the United States and to Europe.

From the opening track of the CD – the rousing South African folk-tune, Tshotsholoza – it’s clearly evident that the ensemble loves what it’s doing – what a jubilant and joyful sound! Yet it is not only the exemplary performing throughout the disc that makes I Carry Your Heart so attractive, but the carefully-chosen program – indeed, there’ s something for everyone. In addition to the uplifting spirituals such as Sit Down Servant and Ain’t That A-Rockin’ are compositions of a more serene nature such as Jonny Priano’s motet Sicut Cervus and Kenneth Lampl’s Dirshu Adonai, the latter a sensitive meditation with layered harmonies and rich tonal clusters. It is in pieces such as these that the choir’s fine melding of vocal ranges comes across so clearly. Several numbers also make use of vocal and instrumental soloists, thereby showcasing the high musical standards even further.

My only disappointment is the absence of program notes – it would have been nice to have the texts, or at least some background material on the pieces. Yet this is a minor quibble and in no way mars a splendid performance. For lovers of a cappella choral music, I Carry your Heart is a delight.

01 Monteverdi UlisseMonteverdi – Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG730 (solideogloria.co.uk)

Few musicians have devoted themselves to the Baroque repertoire with the sustained passion of John Eliot Gardiner; and his relationship with Claudio Monteverdi’s music is unique. Gardiner launched the Monteverdi Choir in 1966 and the Monteverdi Orchestra in 1968, renaming it the English Baroque Soloists in 1976 with the switch to period instruments. This recording of one of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas was recorded in Wrocław during a 2017 tour celebrating the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640), is based on the conclusion of Homer’s Odyssey, as Ulysses reaches home to find his wife Penelope and his lands besieged by suitors. It was composed more than 30 years after Orfeo, when the 73-year-old composer was convinced to write again for the stage at the end of a career devoted largely to composing for the church.

This is a masterful realization of the work, with Gardiner, his choir and orchestra attuned to its pageantry, drama and sheer beauty, as well as Monteverdi’s sudden shifts through a broad emotional range. In the first act, the orchestra caresses and supports the sorrowful Penelope; the second concludes with rising battle music; and in the third the choirs of Heaven and Sea are graced with the elemental clarity and grace of Monteverdi’s madrigals. Il ritorno is a key document in opera’s early history, with an increasing shift from intoned text to dramatic song: Gardiner and company’s performance is both vigorous and authentic.

03 Wagner Ring CycleWagner – Der Ring des Nibelungen
Soloists; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden
Naxos 8.501403 (14 CDs + USB card; naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.501403)

The conductor of this new audio recording, Jaap van Zweden, has now taken over the New York Philharmonic after being the music director of the Dallas Symphony since 2009. TV audiences recently saw him conducting the New Year’s Eve concert with the Philharmonic featuring Renée Fleming. He is also active in Europe and Asia, including Hong Kong where he has been their Philharmonic’s conductor since 2012.

This new Ring Cycle was recorded in concert performances in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre each January from 2015 to 2018. In Das Rheingold from 2015 we hear Matthias Goerne’s Wotan, Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka and Kim Begley as Loge. The 2016 Die Walküre adds Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, Heidi Melton is Sieglinde and Falk Struckmann is Hunding. The Brünnhilde is Petra Lang. Siegfried in 2017 has Simon O’Neill as Siegfried and David Cangelosi as Mime. Heidi Melton is now Brünnhilde and Falk Struckmann is Fafner and the Forest Bird is sung by Valentina Farcas. Götterdämmerung, from 2018, adds choruses of the Bamberg Symphony, the Latvian State and the HK Philharmonic with Brünnhilde now sung by Gun-Brit Barkmin, Siegfried is Daniel Brenna, Michelle DeYoung is Waltraute, Gunther is Shenyang and Hagen, who gets the very last words, is Eric Halfvarson.

For these performances, Van Zweden maintains very steady tempi and does not bury the usually unheard pulse in the music. This strengthens the continuity of events and goes far in holding our attention to the unfolding epic involving the foibles of the driven principals. The recording engineers have achieved a superb job with a wide dynamic range, no spotlighting of any instruments and maintaining a firm bass line, seating us in the concert hall for these live concert performances. The casting couldn’t be better, with impeccable, secure soloists before the Hong Kong Philharmonic that, by Götterdämmerung, has become a first class Wagner orchestra. Not quite the Vienna Philharmonic but they have only been professional since 1974.

There are many spellbinding occasions on these performances that come readily to mind. Here are just a few: The last scene of Die Walküre from Wotan’s heartbreaking farewell to Brünnhilde and then his calling upon Loge to surround his sleeping daughter in an impassable ring of fire, the ethereal Magic Fire Music; in Siegfried, the Forest Bird telling Siegfried about a beautiful sleeping woman surrounded by a circle of flames and then leading him to her; the conversation between the sleeping Hagen and his dead father, Alberich in the second act of Götterdämmerung; the Immolation scene and the redeeming, all-is-well, short epilogue that follows a momentary pause. Altogether a brilliant achievement.

The four operas are available separately but the boxed set contains the four plus a USB stick with the complete librettos in German alongside English translations, together with talks about the project with photos and interviews.

This is the second Ring Cycle from Naxos, the first consisting of live performances of New York’s Metropolitan Opera productions from 1936 to 1941 (8.501106, 11 CDs). Luminaries of the era include Schorr, Varnay, Traubel, Melchior, Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence who rides off on Grane on January 11, 1936. A collector’s collection. Noisy.

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